Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.
BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989)
Black Knight‘s bland predictability almost killed me. Hot Tub Time Machine took some chances and actually, you know, made me laugh, but was bogged down by too many concepts, storylines, and cheap gross-out gags. For my money, the perfect time travel comedy (and damn-near-perfect buddy flick) is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the story of two San Dimas metalhead losers whose band Wyld Stallyns is, unbeknownst to them, the basis for a perfect utopian society in the future. Rufus (George Carlin) travels back in time via phone booth to help them with their high school history report… by giving them his time machine so they can speak to some of history’s most famous characters. If they fail this assignment, Ted (Keanu Reeves) will be sent to an Alaskan military school, preventing him and Bill (Alex Winter) from creating the ultimate album that unites all life as we know it.
What makes Bill & Ted work is that the plot is simultaneously so clever and so stupid that you just have to go along with it. These two morons couldn’t possibly become the most important people in history, but clearly they must. Time has already told. In this world, a phone booth of historical figures is being rounded up by the next two soon-to-be historical figures. And that’s… that’s just awesome. Go with it.
You kids and your historical cosplay.
What really helps this movie is its creative process. The two writers, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, originally conceived Bill & Ted as an improvised stage performance. They weren’t just time travelers, they were a couple of idiots who could find themselves in any outlandish situation, and Chris and Ed would make up that story on the spot using a stage they rented. This writing method keeps the film’s dialogue and situations fresh, rather than predictable, and still adheres to the improv formula of tying up loose ends. You get your pay-offs, but you also get bizarre, hilarious dialogue that you don’t see coming.
One of many “I’m laughing too hard to find this stupid” scenes.
As dumb as Bill & Ted are, they nevertheless live in a world where their time travel rules check out. Their famous jailbreak sequence is completely in line with how an immutable timeline works, but the two of them probably don’t know that. And immutability also means that anything they do with the historical figures they’ve “borrowed” won’t affect how they’re remembered today. The movie avoids checking in with Napoleon or Lincoln post-adventure to make sure they don’t reveal blueprints for an escalator or a vacuum cleaner, because we just plain don’t need to see that. It’s smart, it’s stupid, it’s fun.
Keanu Reeves’s best performance. Go ahead, throw me on the pile of people who’ve made that claim before, regardless of their sincerity.
How much is he really acting? Let’s not touch that one.
And now, the part where I say, “That Alex Winter’s no slouch either,” but the body of work I have to compare it to is a little smaller.
Hey, that Alex Winter’s no slouch.
Hey Alex, how many roles do most people know you for? Freaked doesn’t count.
Really, though, it’s a duo thing. Bill & Ted fit comfortably between Abbott & Costello and Jay & Silent Bob in the Hall of Buddies. You can’t imagine one without the other, and even if their lines might be literally interchangeable (according to the screenwriters), they’re probably friends for that very reason. I would watch 14 Bill & Ted movies as long as they starred Alex & Keanu. They are the quintessential buds.
The historical figures are obviously caricatures. Nobody tries to put their own unique spin on Sigmund Freud or Socrates, and this is perfectly okay for such a goofy premise. I’d try to pick a standout, but they all bring the perfect amount of bravado and cheeky fun for the film. They carry the weight of their reputations and still love hanging out in San Dimas.
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
The Circuits of Time have not aged well.
“This is the pinnacle of computer effects!” – 1989
On the other hand, there is nothing I love more than ’80s lightning. Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Weird Science… you can lightning me all day. B & T’s EA is no exception.
Also, I have NO IDEA HOW THEY MADE TWO BILLS AND TWO TEDS.
What witchcraft is this??
- One of the screenwriters, Chris Matheson, is the son of Richard Matheson, who wrote the novel Bid Time Return, which was made into Somewhere in Time. Whoa!
- Cinemanaut John points out that this and Back to the Future are both ’80s time travel movies about California teens with Oedipal issues blowing out guitar amps before dashing off to school because they’re late. Heavy! I mean, excellent.
THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
I’m pretty sure Bill & Ted are never aware of how time travel works in any one scene, but my favorite moment of confusion is early in the film, when a future version of the twosome is trying to give them advice.
“Look, we know how you feel. We didn’t believe it either, when we were you, and we us said what we us are saying right now.”
I could do a joke-for-joke analysis on why this is better than Black Knight or Hot Tub Time Machine, but the real measure of its victory is the laugh test. Just about every line is a gut-buster. One of the members of my watching party was howling the entire time, and remarked during the credits, “Wow, I haven’t seen that since I was nine. That held up really well.” I’ve heard arguments that the movie doesn’t build to much of a climax. While nobody’s blowing up a Death Star, the end report is still a hoot, and Lincoln weirdly makes me tear up every time. As dumb comedies go, it’s one of the smartest. Party on.
LATER THIS WEEK:
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.